Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why did Tunisia revolt? Too-deferred dreams

The speed of change in Tunisia has been remarkable. Just to recap:

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his North African country last night after a month of violent street protests over unemployment and corruption, leaving the government in the hands of his long-serving prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi.

Ghannouchi, who declared himself acting president late yesterday, will meet with representatives of the country’s political parties today to form a government, the official TAP news agency reported. A military curfew emptied the streets of the capital, Tunis, overnight, although there was some looting, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television network reported.

“These protests cut across all sectors of society, and I do not think the regime understood what was happening,” said Malika Zeghal, a North Africa expert and professor of contemporary Islamic thought and life at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The question now is whether Mohamed Ghannouchi will continue the old regime of Ben Ali or start anew, announcing real elections and a coalition government made up of all parts of society to hold free elections.”

Ghannouchi called on Tunisians to be united, saying the day will be crucial for both the country and future political changes. He said groups including civic organizations and several national figures will be included in a further round of talks, TAP reported.

Why the revolution? African-American writer Langston Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred" puts it well.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

I've blogged here in the past about Tunisia's demographic transition, specifically the rapid shift to replacement-level fertility. This shift has created a demographic sweet spot--roughly 70% of Tunisia's population is in the 15-64 age group while barely more than 7% are over-65s--and Tunisia's economy has done reasonably well, evidencing sustained moderate growth from the early 1990s on in extractive industries, tourism, and light manufacturing. In many respects, Tunisia has been a well-managed society, with a good physical infrastructure, excellent health and education systems, and--very importantly--a very close relationship with the European Union that has helped Tunisia thrive economically. Combined with its strong links with Europe--especially France, but also Italy--it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that Tunisia is the country in the Arab world most akin to Turkey in its successful semi-peripheral industrialization. Tunisia, along with Morocco and Algeria, has seen most successful developing countries in the world.

At Foreign Policy, Christopher Alexander examined the situation in detail. At one point, Ben Ali's regime could do whatever it wanted on the grounds of protecting Tunisia from the bloody chaos of 1990s Algeria. But now?

Once it became clear that the Islamists no longer posed a serious threat, many Tunisians became less willing to accept the government's heavy-handedness. The regime also lost some of its earlier deftness. Its methods became less creative and more transparently brutal. The government seemed less willing to at least play at any dialogue with critics or opposition parties. Arbitrary arrests, control of the print media and Internet access, and physical attacks on journalists and human rights and opposition-party activists became more common. So, too, did stories of corruption -- not the usual kickbacks and favoritism that one might expect, but truly mafia-grade criminality that lined the pockets of Ben Ali's wife and her family.

WikiLeaks releases helped destabilize the situation in the first place, providing confirmation of the corruption of the Tunisian political elite; this, along with the very well-documented authoritarianism of the Ben Ali regime, certainly created pressure for change. The political situation wouldn't alone have caused revolution, I think, if not for the incapacity of Tunisia's economy and polity to make adequate use of its demographic dividend. The discontented youth of Tunisia brought it all down.

“The fruits of progress have enabled Ben Ali to secure the support both of the middle class (whose standard of living has indeed steadily improved) and of his foreign partners (whose multinational companies find advantages in Tunisia’s lower labor-costs and tax-rates),”Amel BouBekeur wrote in an article on Tunisia published in 2009 on the Carnegie Foundation's website.

BouBekeur, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, views Tunisia as a distinct case within the region. It does not formally reject western democratic standards and its open-market policies and containment of Islamist encourage its European and American partners “with an economically stable and secure environment.”

At the same time, she adds, this model of governance allows the president - operating through his party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) - to present a benign face to the world while consolidating firm control over the country.

[. . .]

[There is a] growing divide between the wealthy, tourist-oriented, north and the “sulky” south.

"The weakness of the development model has caused inequality between regions, as witnessed by the fact that 90 percent of (investment) projects are in coastal areas, and 10 percent in the interior," opposition leader Rachid Khechana told Reuters.

The southern region, less touristic than the north and traditionally more hostile to Ben Ali, receives little or nothing in the way of infrastructural support or social services.

Peaceful protests against this situation are often suppressed.

In 2008, peaceful protests by workers of the southern mining region of Gafsa against their working conditions were violently suppressed by the authorities and eighteen trade unionists were subsequently sentenced for up to ten years.

As a consequence of the regional disparities, recent years have seen the migration of thousands of graduates from the poorer interior to coastal cities in search of work. Many come to Sousse, Sfax and Meknassi, trying to find work.

Mohammed Bouazizi was among the migration. A week ago he doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.

Other than the regional disparities, the country's pattern of growth - relying on textile and tourism - is heavily dependent on low-skilled labor and hence excludes the better educated.

Textiles are a major source of foreign currency revenue, with more than 90 percent of production exported, according to the official government website.

Investment in education has seen soaring numbers of graduates passing through the country's universities, from 41,100 in 1986 to over 357,400 in 2009. This trend has not been met by a corresponding rise in demand for highly skilled, notes a recent study published by Carnegie Foundation.

As a result, four out ten young graduates are now unemployed.

"Mismatch between the supply and demand of the labor market in Tunisia, is one of the major forces of the aggravated protest that spread all over the country," says Nadia Belhaj, senior economist at the Economic Research Forum.

Alexander went into more detail about the consistent failure to include the whole of the country in the economic growth.

Tunisia has built a reputation as the Maghreb's healthiest economy since Ben Ali seized power, as market-oriented reforms opened the country to private investment and integrated it more deeply into the regional economy. Annual GDP growth has averaged 5 percent. But the government's policies have done little to address long-standing concerns about the distribution of growth across the country. Since the colonial period, Tunisia's economic activity has been concentrated in the north and along the eastern coastline. Virtually every economic development plan since independence in 1956 has committed the government to making investments that would create jobs and enhance living standards in the center, south, and west. Eroding regional disparities would build national solidarity and slow the pace of urban migration.

But the disparities remained. Thus, this month the young, the educated, the newly urbanized, the people living away from the core the Tunisian state--all combined spontaneously, aided by social media, to challenge the legitimacy of a regime that didn't let Tunisia's young achieve their full potential.

Will a new regime change this? One hopes. Tunisia does have a solid foundation for growth, with the aforementioned close links with Europe, large and young labour force with good qualifications, and tradition of decent economic governance. Taking advantage of these factors to engineer a Turkish-style transition to high-speed, knowledge-intensive economic growth is another thing entirely.


Борис Денисов said...

The future of Tunisia (poll)

Anonymous said...

As a Tunisian, I am very proud of what we did, and I hope that this is just a start for us and for the arab and muslims in general, we want a best future for ourselfs and our childrens a democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and we will not allow any dictator to stick on the presidential chair any more...:)
but now in august 2011 we would like also to have the right to shoose how we practise islam...and dont push us in being scared of islam and islamist...:(

Anonymous said...

with love and respect Sonia tunisia...I love tunisia...I love islam in my heart..